I had the pleasure of being an artist-in-residence at Denali National Park this August. The temptation for an artist is to express the enormity of this place and its creatures. And so, being a contrarian and an entomologist (maybe these are related), I decided to write about the little stuff. My first step was to decide on an appropriately small scale for my inspirations. I chose to focus on an area of 38 square inches, which was a trillion-fold smaller than the expanse of the Park.
The next step was to decide on how many words I’d be allowed for each piece. For this I analyzed Jack London’s Call of the Wild (37,058 words) and White Fang (72,071 words). I condensed my writing by a thousand-fold relative to London’s works, composing micro-essays of 37 words or 72 words.
And so here are few of my distillations of Denali National Park…
I’m told that people have spirit animals, dreamtime creatures with admirable powers that folks emulate. Wolves, bears, and eagles are common mentors. So Denali is a spiritual animal sanctuary. I’m pretty skeptical about such things, but if I had a spirit animal it might be the ptarmigan. A bit plump, it quietly saunters along, savoring whatever it finds, matching its background to avoid conflict, and somehow making gray, brown and white beautiful.
Inspiration: a ptarmigan
I admire the ground squirrel’s industriousness, but I do not envy its chronic anxiety of teeth and talon. I admire a grizzly’s strength, but I do not envy fueling a quarter-ton body from the tundra’s larder. I admire the caribou’s grace, but I do not envy its crazed dash to momentarily escape the torment of biting flies. I do not admire, but perhaps I envy, those who believe that Nature is sweet.
Inspiration: an Alaskan ground squirrel
A bumblebee lumbers down the buffet line of a fireweed stalk. Like a steamer table, the blossoms provide sun-warmed nectar. She gorges herself before the Alaskan autumn ends the all-you-can eat deal. Gluttony is so rarely admirable.
Inspiration: bumblebee foraging on fireweed
No ranger explains what birches, gentians, and mosses are good for. But the willows—the shrubby stepchildren of Denali—are said to be good for feeding moose, hares, etc. Can they just be good at being willows?
Inspiration: a willow sapling